‘Describe and explain the differences between the reactions of sodium and water and aluminium and water.’
‘Discuss the process of photosynthesis.’
‘Explain why car tires become warm to touch after a while.’
Don’t worry – I don’t actually want to test you on your high school science knowledge.
I want your teen see how the clue to nailing a question in a science exam is in the questions themselves.
What do I mean?
The hypothetical questions above don’t give a lot.
On the face of each one, it’s not obvious what the parameters of the question are.
Where do you start? How much detail do you need to go into?
But if you know what clues to look out for, the questions actually tell the student exactly what they need to do.
Let’s take the first question: ‘Describe and explain the differences between the reactions of sodium and water and aluminium and water’.
On the face of it, this seems like a very broad question.
Where on earth are you supposed to start?
The magic words in this question are ‘describe’ and ‘explain’.
These words are the kinds of signals your teen needs to be on the lookout for.
How does this work?
The word ‘describe’ in this question tells your teen that the first thing they need to do is describe the differences in the reactions between both sodium and aluminium with water.
Describe simply means ‘tell us the facts’.
Your teen would need to detail what one would observe in both of these reactions in such a way that emphasises the differences between them.
Describe the reaction of one, and then the other.
I never said this was string theory.
The word ‘explain’ tells your teen that they need to explain why the reactions are different.
For this part your teen will need to have done the hard yakka.
They’ll need to understand why the different atomic structures of sodium and aluminium make them react with water differently, and how this corresponds with the different reaction observations.
This second bit – the ‘how’ part – is for extra brownie points. It will show the examiner that your teen understands the link between what’s going on at the atomic level and what we see with our own eyes in the test tube.
And that’s all folks.
I hope you can see how the clue to how to go about answering the question was embedded in the question itself.
Let’s take a look at the second question: ‘Discuss the process of photosynthesis’.
Can you pick out the ‘signal word’ in this question?
You got it – it’s ‘discuss’.
When you see the word ‘discuss’, or a word like it, you know that it’s not a question your teen can answer in just one sentence.
Because of the word ‘discuss’, this is a question that requires the student to have a well-developed understanding of the process of photosynthesis.
Before your teen thinks that their mind has gone blank and they now know nothing about photosynthesis – don’t worry – the word ‘discuss’ reveals more than one might think.
As I’ve said, when a question asks you to discuss something, it wants you to really go for it.
There’s a way to do this.
When you ‘discuss’ something – ie, when you explain something to someone in a decent amount of detail, you don’t start off my launching into the most complicated part.
You preface your answer with a simple description of the topic/process/subject you’re about to discuss.
So that’s exactly what your teen needs to do when faced with an open-ended question like ‘discuss’.
The very first thing they need to do is describe whatever the subject matter of the question is.
Describe the process of photosynthesis – what are the steps.
Once they’ve done that, they can explain what they’ve described.
Why is it like that? Why does it behave that way? What is the reason for that?
Explain why photosynthesis happens this way.
Then they can dazzle the examiner with their understanding of how different bits/parts/concepts link together, why this important for the broader purpose of X, etc.
Your teen should now have a well-structured and well thought out answer, to a question that on its face seemed to offer no clues as to how to go about answering it.
To sum up…
When it comes to written answers in science exams, your teen should always be looking for ‘signals’ in the questions.
They should ask themselves – ‘what is this question really asking me to do’?
Of course the questions won’t tell them the answers exactly, but there are always patterns to look for in questions that will come up time and time and again.